Basic writing “can be loosely characterized as student writing […] which falls short of some set of expectations established by instructors or administrators” (Moody). Incidence of basic writing can be chronic or situation-specific and due either to student ability and experience or to teachers’ skills and expectations. This literature review examines strategies that teachers of basic writing can use to help their students be successful in academia and in society. Some researchers offer very specific pedagogical techniques that focus on the student, including functional grammar instruction, controlled composition, and focus on inferential reasoning; while other researchers acknowledge the subjectivity of each individual teaching situation and offer general guidelines instead.
Specific, Student-Based Strategies
One strategy encourages educators to teach with context in mind when they engage in grammar instruction, teaching function along with form (Fearn and Farnan). Studies show that grammar study focused on identification, description, and definition (IDD) fails to enhance students’ writing performance. Working without context and teaching using bland, unengaging, and condescending “skills cards” and other similar methods is simply not effective (Wilson 2). In a test study, one group of students learned grammar the traditional IDD way while another group looked at grammatical forms within a larger context and learned not only how to identify parts of speech but how to manipulate the grammar and use it in a text. “Students in the treatment groups demonstrated enhanced writing performance” (Fearn and Farnan 72). The take away lesson for educators is that writing can be the context in which we teach grammar. In this case, the learning of form recognition transferred to students’ writing and their holistic scores were dramatically improved.
Another, more recent teaching strategy that researchers have successfully employed is called controlled composition (Gorrell). Like teaching form with function, controlled composition also focuses on grammar and the smallest units of language. It is intended for students “whose biggest writing problem is lack of attention to written forms” (308). In this strategy, students work on transcribing word for word a short 150-200 word essay. The next part of the process requires student to take the same text and grammatically change one or two words in it. As they progress, the changes the students are asked to make become more complex and varied. This method has proved successful in teaching ESL students and has helped native English speakers as well. In contrast to other remedial methods, students who practice controlled composition “to not demonstrate the negative, resentful, inhibited attitude toward writing that is usually considered characteristic of the basic writer” (313).
Student writers can be very sensitive to how they think instructors perceive them. Another strategy used to instruct basic writers without making them feel inhibited and resentful is to help them work on their inferential reasoning skills (Zeller). “We should not underestimate the cognitive development basic writers bring to the writing class” (346). Many so-called basic writers are smart and know how to make inferential, logical connections between ideas and texts already. They just need help strengthening those ideas and becoming aware that working through such ideas is the basis of good writing. These students are capable of expressing their ideas verbally but may need more help turning that oral language into coherent, effective writing (Wilson 98). “What these students need are assignments that build on their ability and give them practice in analyzing and synthesizing” (Zeller 346).
General, Teacher-Based Strategies
Other teachers and researchers offer more general strategies. Several of these strategies can be linked under the idea that basic writing students need more practice in their writing in order to catch up to the mainstream. Often, basic writers come to classrooms without a lot of needed exposure to texts and writing forms in the first place. It is the educator’s job to give them access to more texts and more opportunities to write (Lunsford). This practice can be encouraged in informal settings or in more formal ones like the Supplemental Writing Workshop (SWW) as implemented in a small university in upstate New York (Rigolino and Freel). The SWW specifically encourages students to pre-write and spend more time incubating their ideas a la Donald Murray. Either by themselves or with instructors, tutors, or other students, basic wrighters need to work and rework their analyses and syntheses of texts, sometimes aloud, in order to make their writing more refined (Rigolino and Freel; Zeller; Wilson).
In addition to advocating the axiom that “practice makes perfect,” still other researchers offer other general strategies. Teachers of basic writing, even more than teachers of traditionally stronger students, should be self-aware. They need to have an understanding of their belief systems and axiologies when they go to teach. Teachers must also be reflective in their teaching, always testing their theories and revising their pedagogies based on what they learn and how their beliefs may change (Hillocks; Fulkerson).
Furthermore, educators need to be acutely aware of their students’ unique needs and socioeconomic situations (Holladay; Lunsford). Basic writers are not a homogenous group and cannot all be taught using the same methods. Above all, good teachers must be compassionate (Hillocks; Holladay; Shaughnessy). They must not only understand the uniqueness of their individual students but care about those students as well. Only then can educators empower students (Holladay 30; Rigolino and Freel; Soliday).
Teachers can empower by expanding students’ ideas of writing instead of limiting them with the forms and subjects they think basic writers can handle (Lunsford 70). Basic writers who are restricted feel the condescension and begin to see writing as a trap to test their abilities instead of a means of communicating with other people (Shaughnessy 7). To show their compassion, understanding, and desire to empower, researchers and teachers of basic writing overwhelmingly encourage educators to be transparent about their teaching methodologies, their motivations, and their goals for their students (Holladay; Lunsford; Shaughnessy). Teachers should explain as much as possible and help their students understand where the teachers are coming from.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Teachers and students alike will attest to the efficacy of the above specific and general strategies in certain situations and with certain populations. It is important that teachers have access to as many methods and strategies as possible before going out into the field, and they need to continue challenging and honing their pedagogies as much as possible to make sure they are still viable and effective in the real world of teaching. There needs to be more research done on new and different strategies for teaching basic writing. As teachers out in the field adopt new working strategies through trial and error, they need better ways to document their successes and better avenues to share that knowledge with other teachers. There needs to be more interaction among composition teachers at all levels. More dialogue means that more ideas can be shared and considered. Publications like Journal of Basic Writing and College Composition and Communication do these things, but they need to do more.
For works cited, see annotated bib